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State land sales seen as tax salve for counties

Selling off state acreage could help a handful of counties, but four counties that would qualify already are in booming South Florida.

Published April 9, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - For years, small, rural counties have complained that the state was preserving environmentally sensitive land by taking it off the tax rolls. Good for the environment, they said, but it doesn't help local governments make ends meet.

Now lawmakers have come up with a solution: in counties where more than half the property is government owned, sell off some of the state land.

"We feel there's a tremendous amount of property that can be put back on the tax rolls," said state Rep. Joe Spratt, R-LaBelle.

But half the counties that would be affected are in booming South Florida, not the piney woods of the Panhandle.

Environmental groups have not opposed the measure because they have focused their attention on bills they view as more important. But they question its necessity. The state official in charge of buying land says, "This bill was not our idea."

The bill (HB 1407/SB 1310) calls for state officials to inventory all public land in Florida, whether owned by the state and federal government, water management districts, counties or cities.

If the inventory finds that more than half of any county is publicly owned, the state would be required to sell some of its land. The bill does not specify how much should be sold.

Highest priority would go to buyers who put the land to "productive use," either through development or farming, said state Sen. JD Alexander, R-Winter Haven, sponsor of the Senate bill.

The measure is necessary because "we're finding in many of our rural counties that the federal and state governments have acquired so much land that we're ending up with very little tax base," Spratt, the House sponsor, told the Senate Natural Resources Committee last week before it approved the measure, 7-0. The House Natural Resources Committee also passed it, 17-0.

Eight of Florida's 67 counties would be affected, according to a preliminary assessment by the state Department of Environmental Protection. But only three could be called rural.

The rural counties are Franklin, Wakulla and Liberty, all in the Panhandle. They were pushed over the 50 percent mark not by state purchases but by the 564,000-acre Apalachicola National Forest, established in 1936, said Eva Armstrong, who is in charge of state land purchases for the DEP. The state owns land there too, but getting rid of it would still leave more than half in government hands.

Another affected county also is in the Panhandle: Okaloosa County, home to the world's largest air base, the 384,000-acre Eglin Air Force Base.

Okaloosa would be included because the bill does not differentiate between preservation land and general government property, Armstrong said.

The other four are primarily urban counties in South Florida: Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier and Monroe counties. Broward and Collier in particular have in the past decade been the focus of rapid development, far outpacing government efforts to buy property for preservation.

State-owned land in those four counties could fetch a high price. Meanwhile, the state is buying even more land in those counties for the $8-billion plan to replumb the damaged Everglades.

Land owned by the federal government in those South Florida counties includes Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Dry Tortugas National Park and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

The state's land holdings in those four counties include Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve - made famous by the book The Orchid Thief and the movie Adaptation - as well as Picayune Strand State Forest, John Lloyd Beach State Recreation Area and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area.

According to DEP's preliminary assessment, the land owned by state and federal government agencies alone is estimated to total about 9-million acres, or about a quarter of Florida's 34-million acres. Performing an inventory of that land, plus whatever is owned by the water districts and local governments, would probably cost the taxpayers more than $1.5-million and take more than three years, according to a House bill analysis.

But state law already requires the DEP to review its holdings every five years and determine whether any of it should be declared surplus, Armstrong pointed out. "We think we've already got the authority to do everything (the bill) is asking us to do."

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida called the proposal "completely unnecessary," and Judy Hancock of the Sierra Club said it "doesn't seem like it's well thought-out."

Instead of trying to get rid of environmentally sensitive land, Hancock said, "we should be glad we'll have something left."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 9, 2003, 02:03:05]

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